This editorial is also published in Kathimerini.
The road from Rethymno to my village in the mountains of central Crete — which is nearly abandoned now that an easier route has opened — is a living organism with its history, its patchwork of new and old pieces, memories of small and great joys, tragedies, miracles, votive offerings, old detours taken over by the forest, with bridges, cliffs, landslides and endless turns. My grandfather and his brothers, like many young men at the time, worked as laborers on the road to provide for the studies of their elder brother, so that the family could take a great leap forward and break free from the tight bonds of the earth and the weather’s wiles. After countless generations of farmers and craftsmen, one young man got away to open the way for others.
That is how life went in our villages, where people depended solely on their own abilities and on the strong social fabric and rules of behavior that had developed over the centuries. People got by on their own, without the help of the state. The state manifested itself only when it made demands — for taxes, conscripts and anything else that served its interests, interests that were seldom in line with those of the local population. The law was strict and its enforcement certain. But often, the wiser heads of the village would maintain order without the need for police to intervene. The daily wage was earned from sunrise to sunset, with a brief break for lunch.
As my grandfather noted many years later, “With a day’s wage you could buy some bread. Today you could buy bread for the whole village.” For a pair of boots, you would need to work for a month, he said. “Today, with two or three days’ wages, you can buy the best. Where did all this money come from?” That is how he measured the value of work — and, in his later years, he was afraid that things were slipping out of control. He got his first pair of shoes when he was 18. He and his brothers worked on the road, in the fields, they scrambled up mountains barefoot. When my grandfather first put on a pair of boots, he took to the mountains, he flew over rocks and thorns, he became a famous hunter. He found his own freedom, his own success, his own happiness.
That generation — most of whose members were born before Crete joinedGreecein 1913 — saw the whole country take giant leaps from Bronze Age isolation to the flood of wealth that came with tourism, European funds and loans. They served in wars far fromCrete, they fought the occupier of their land, they killed enemies, they wept for comrades and brothers, they lost children to death and emigration. They built musical instruments with their hands, they sang, they danced, they lived. They saw machines bulldoze their way over the roads that they had cut out of the mountains with pickaxes and wheelbarrows, they saw medical clinics for the first time, followed by doctors, a supermarket, a pharmacy. They say many of their children learned the game of politics, managing to get politicians to appoint their children to the public sector — so that they could be guaranteed their salary come rain or shine. And the old folks, at the end of their lives and the dawn of a new era, received pensions from the state. For the first time, all of then stopped being dependent on the earth or their children; they were able to pay their telephone and electricity bills, living in a luxury that their parents could never have imagined.
But they knew that the changes, however necessary and late they were, carried the seeds of destruction. My grandfather, who died 11 years ago, despaired at what he saw. “Where is freedom when anyone can do whatever he likes, without any concern for others?” he asked. Many years earlier, at the beginning of the 1980s, another wise old man nodded toward the only television in the village (in his son’s coffee shop), and said: “This devil will be our ruin. It will make us all the same.” It took me several years to understand what he meant, that he was not talking about the blonde presenters with their bland Athenian accent. He was worried that we would all parrot the same forms of behavior, that we would stop carving out our own way, in accordance with our own potential. Indeed, we all became like each other, acting the same way, demanding the same things. We all rose together and now we fall. Today we are all barefoot among the thorns, unprepared for the difficulties we face. We cannot go back to where we were and we do not know where we’re headed. Thanks to our unforgettable dead, though, we know that there is a road forward.
Mr. Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor and a columnist of Kathimerini, the leading Greek morning daily. He is also the founding editor of Kathimerini’s English Edition, which is published as a supplement to The International Herald Tribune in Greece, and Cyprus.